FORT BRAGG, Calif. — Seventeen people have died in a series of atmospheric rivers that have hit California in the past two weeks, a staggering number of deaths in a state used to wildfires, earthquakes and droughts, a state official said Tuesday.

The deaths have been reported across the state, from San Bernardino County in the south to Mendocino County in the north, according to the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

An agency spokesman, Brian Ferguson, said two types of deaths have been the most frequent: those resulting from trees falling on people and vehicles overwhelmed by floodwaters.

“We haven’t had a flood in a long time,” he said. “People have a lot of experience with fires. We are coming out of years of drought. The public has to learn a new skill.”

The slowly rising water, he said, may seem more innocuous than the kind of fast-paced, massive wildfires the state has grown accustomed to in recent years. While such a fire could have a county or two in its sights, recent storms have battered two-thirds of the state with unrelenting rain and powerful winds, she said.

The 1990s was possibly the last time California had that much rain at one time, he said.

Governor Gavin Newsom hinted at the link between climate change and the state’s dramatic weather changes. «The dry ones are getting a lot drier in the last three years, and the wet ones are getting a lot wetter. This weather whiplash, is that the new reality?» he told reporters Tuesday in hard-hit Santa Cruz County.

A crew cleans up an area of ​​the flooded 101 Freeway in Montecito, Calif., Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023. California saw little relief from torrential rains Tuesday as the latest in a relentless series of storms inundated the roads, turned rivers into torrents.  flood zones and forced thousands of people to flee towns with a history of deadly landslides.
A crew cleans up a flooded area of ​​the 101 Freeway in Montecito, California, Tuesday.Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP

The dramatic changes were reminiscent of the last rain event with a significant death toll: In 2018, nearly two dozen people died after mudslides hit the wealthy Santa Barbara enclave of Montecito. The area had been burned by a wildfire and left vulnerable to flooding.

Five years to the day, Montecito still seemed vulnerable: On Monday, fearing the high rate of rainfall, authorities evacuated the entire community of 10,000 people. By Tuesday, all evacuation and shelter-in-place orders in the county had been lifted, though a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office warned residents to expect slippery roads and debris when they returned home.

Local resident Fidel Osorio rescues a dog from a flooded home in Merced, California, on January 10, 2023. - Relentless storms battered California again on Tuesday, the latest episode of extreme weather that has killed 14 people.  The ferocious storms caused flash flooding, closed key roads, downed trees and swept away drivers and passengers, including a reported five-year-old boy who remains missing in central California.
Resident Fidel Osorio rescues a dog from a flooded house in Merced, California, on Tuesday.Josh Edelson/AFP – Getty Images

Another 34,000 people remained under evacuation orders across the state, Newsom said Tuesday.

Among the most recent storm-related deaths are those of people killed in a car accident and lightning strikes in the Tulare County area, Newsom said.

Newsom asked people to pray for a 5-year-old boy in San Luis Obispo County who went missing after the vehicle his mother was driving got stuck. The father was rescued, but the boy disappeared in the rising waters, county sheriff’s spokesman Tony Cipolla said.

The sheriff’s office resumed the search Tuesday morning after «extreme» weather hampered the effort Monday, Cipolla said. The search is expected to continue on Wednesday, he said.

Meanwhile, it still looks like more than a week to go until the rain ends, Newsom said. Forecasters expect at least three more atmospheric rivers to drench the state over the next eight days.

«The challenge now is that one should not be fooled by the acuity of the storms in terms of the number of inches of rain and the intensity,» he said. That «doesn’t tell the whole story. We’re drenched. This place is drenched. And now, a more modest amount of rainfall could have the same or greater impact in terms of ground conditions.»